Civil War among the Israelites
The death of Saul led to the anointing of David as the King of Judah, but Saul’s successor and designated heir was Ishbaal, the only of his sons to survive. The House of Judah seceded from the Kingdom of Israel, an action not recognized by Ishbaal, who was supported by Abner, a commander of Saul’s army and the dead king’s cousin. David established his reign over Judah at Hebron, while Ishbaal was anointed as king at Mahanaim, east of the Jordan. The opposing factions, according to the biblical stories, fought each other for some time, though the Bible only provides details to a few of the encounters. Josephus’s Antiquities confirms the civil war.
Armies of the two factions opposed each other at Gibeon, situated in present day Palestine. It was agreed between the armies to settle the issue using champions according to Second Samuel, and twelve men from each side were picked to oppose each other in mortal combat. In the biblical account, all of the champions were killed in the combat, leaving the issue unresolved, and a general engagement between the armies was launched. Abner’s forces were defeated, and he fled with the remains of his army, with Abner personally pursued by Asahel, the brother of Joab, one of the staunchest supporters of King David.
Asahel caught up with Abner and though the latter attempted to avoid combat, knowing that the younger and smaller Asahel was no match for him, Asahel persisted and Abner was forced to kill him. According to Samuel, this was the cause of a personal feud between Abner and Joab who, under the customs of the time was honor-bound to avenge his brother. Josephus disagreed with the account of the feud, stating that Joab recognized that his brother was killed in honorable single combat. Following the battle at Gibeon, the tide of the civil war was clearly in favor of David, and dissension appeared in Ishbaal’s kingdom.
The dissension led to Ishbaal accusing Abner of taking one of Saul’s concubines for his own, an act which could be seen as displaying intentions towards taking all of Saul’s property, including the throne of Israel. Fearful of assassination, Abner switched sides to that of David, and in so doing brought the Benjamin tribe with him. After Abner joined David’s forces Joab murdered him in Hebron, an act attributed to vengeance by Samuel, and to jealousy of rank by Josephus, who claimed that Abner’s rank threatened Joab’s position in the court and in the army. David did not retaliate against his general for the death of Abner.
The civil war was brought to an end with the assassination of Ishbaal, by two of his officers, Rechab and Baanah. The assassins had expected to be rewarded by David, who instead had them arrested for the crime of regicide and hanged after their hands and feet were cut off. According to Second Samuel, the assassins brought David Ishbaal’s head as evidence of their deed, and David had it buried in Abner’s grave in Hebron, saying to the murderers, “â¦shall I not now require his blood of your hand, and take you away from the earth?”